The rhythm of the Heights hits different. Up in the Washington Heights of Manhattan, heritage and community find a blissful intersection. Young Latinx Americans pave their neighborhood streets with locomotive dreams. They are all connected by rap, the vivid colors of their borough playing as a fantastical connection to their pasts, an entire Latin history conveyed through gorgeous song and dance. From Broadway to the screen, In the Heights is the most bouncing party you have ever been to, one that is joyous and free, and ultimately exhausts itself through its own inimitable energy. The film is so cozily contented with its own uniquely freeform expression, that the party simply can’t just end once everyone’s ready to go home.
Before Hamilton changed everything, Lin Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights for Broadway. It was also a mega success, a revelatory reimagining of everything show tunes could be. It took everything going on in the culture, the great influx of culturally specific art being made, and primed it for the stage. Like Hamilton, it is written with the same sense of Liberal Optimism. Miranda arrived during the Obama years and is possibly the greatest signifier of the shifting attitudes of that time. Truthfully, Miranda’s original breakout work also avoids all the political problems of Hamilton. It’s art made for a community, by a community, and it’s ever-relevant, taking no giant risks, but reaping sound rewards for the flowing craft of its songwriting. Our high art had never so closely resembled the great intrinsic beauty of our diverse cultures, with such hyper-specificity, written for those communities. Making a movie is one way to finally make that work accessible to everyone.
Jon M. Chu is a pragmatic choice for a director. All of his films stay close to the dance. Debuting with two films in the Step Up franchise was like a statement of intent for Chu: whether you like those films or not, they were a turnkey operation; if you want a director who understands the ethos of modern dance, Chu is the right choice. Then, there was the mega success of the Crazy Rich Asians (2018) adaptation. This major point in the filmography tells us what we need to know going forward. Chu makes glossy, expensive-looking films, that are full of expansive theatrical bloat, but also a distinctive and real understanding of multiculturalism, the other defining trait of his work. Reuniting with cinematographer Alice Brooks — whom he worked with on 2015’s Jem and the Holograms — the driving principle of how the film is shot is to connect the Washington Heights through community. The way the film is shot does it no special favors, it still feels like something better expressed on the stage, which is not a foregone conclusion, but a result of unimaginative cinematography, that slightly misses the great cultural expression of the dance, the writing, and the characters.
The saving grace of it all is Miranda’s phenomenal writing, perfectly preserved in the film. The wraparound story finds Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos, in a special performance) telling his story to a new generation of children. It preserves a beautiful tradition of oral storytelling, the emphasis being that if he tells them the story, their history and traditions will live on. It’s a narrative of a sweltering New York summer where electricity hung in the air until a massive blackout brought everyone together and reminded them why this was their home. It’s a moment held in suspended animation. A diverse cultural block that could up and disappear overnight. The characters feel largely tangible and connected to their space, with great performances by some key actors. Melissa Barrera is captivating as Usnavi’s love interest. Corey Hawkins has a great deal of fun as Benny, who provides city traffic reports as freeform raps. The whole theater clamored for the sweet moments where Miranda’s Piragua Guy was on screen.
A film defined by its moments, In the Heights has a lot of them. The romance pieces are well-delivered and the actors have lovely chemistry. Every character feels individualistic and written around their own attributes. Occasionally, the film is even funny; there’s a great moment where Usnavi’s namesake is revealed — as his parents were immigrating, they saw a far-off naval ship marked “U.S. Navy,” and so, that’s his name, or at least the clever story they always told about it. The driving force of the story is that Usnavi wants to move to the Dominican Republic to take care of some family property. Meanwhile, Vanessa only wants to move further Downtown and work in fashion, causing a necessary friction in their desired outcomes. The story moves along well enough with the dance and is initially quite captivating. Once it gets to the blackout and has to circle around to the second act, however, it loses all of the momentum. The party has gone on too long and everyone’s ready to go home. By then, when everyone is talking regularly, we’d almost wish the whole thing were sung through. It takes enough notable influences from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), but cannot capture that measured fluidity and consistency in its music.
Choreography is king. There are moments where sprawling flash mobs happen because the songs insist that they must. And they are always wonderful to watch. Oh yes, the dancing is sumptuous. Anytime someone is really moving, In the Heights has all the momentum in the world. In any given song number, it feels like the next culturally defining musical. It feels like the genre’s back, baby, and it’s here to stay. And it feels like movies never left. That’s just the right energy. The feel good hit of the Summer. Everything we’ve been missing. A pure expression of joy through movement and expert choreography that is worth it on a big screen. There is one brief surrealist twist, where it just doesn’t play right for the screen, but the rest of the movie just flows.
In the Heights is a cinematic fiesta. Fluently transcribing the vibrancy of Latinx culture, it’s such a winning formula, that expediently expresses the need for theatrical experiences. It’s worth seeing this great coming together of community with your own community, a packed theater house. That’s the only way to approximate the stage show by watching it. Manuel remains a staggering presence on our present culture and In the Heights will only further cement his status as a game-changing writer of heightened prestige. The film runs too long and stagnates as it moves between acts but we’re never going to forget this party. We’re never going to forget the way things were, for the blissful and beautiful short moment, that one time In the Heights when everyone came together. That’s why we tell stories. So we may never forget. In the Heights ensures that will never happen.